View Full Version : The Machines Change, the Work Remains the Same

2-26-11, 1:18pm
Just finished reading an article by Robert Jensen (http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/the_machines_change_the_work_remains_the_same/) (UT professor) that I thought was interesting. I know several people here follow Mr. Jensen and us folks in Austin are fortunate to have such a person that regularly gives presentations at various venues around campus and through Third Coast Activist Resource Center (http://thirdcoastactivist.org/aboutus.html)

Two basic points about computer-mediated communication (CMC) :

First, CMC makes possible the distribution of information to a larger number of people at lower financial cost than previous technologies (though the ecological cost of a communication technology that creates highly toxic e-waste and consumes enormous amounts of energy may make this technology prohibitively expensive in the long run) and allows for easier and faster feedback from the recipients of that information.

Second, while the technology is too new for definitive assertions, there is a seductive quality to CMC that leads some groups and individuals to spend too much of their time and resources online, even when there’s ample reason to suspect that expense of energy isn’t productive.

Two corollary cautions:
First, political information is not political action. Being able to distribute more information more widely more quickly does not automatically lead to people acting on that information. The information must be presented in ways that lead people to believe they should act, and there must be vehicles for that action.

Second, what appears to be wasting time online is not always a waste of time. Just as we solidify bonds with people face-to-face by chatting about the mundane aspects of our lives, we sometimes do that online. Political organizing—like all of life—includes such interaction.

Scale of the problems

For many years activists focused on “environmental problems,” offering ways that humans could adjust the way we live to cope with problems of dirty air, dirty water, and dirty land. The assumption behind those projects was that an environment consistent with long-term human flourishing was possible within existing economic, social, and political systems.

That assumption was wrong, and evidence continues to pile up that the ecosphere cannot sustain billions of people when even a fraction of them live at First-World levels. Look at any crucial measure of the health of our ecosphere—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity—and the news is bad and getting worse. And we live in an oil-based world that is fast running out of oil with no viable replacement fuels. And we can’t forget global warming and climate instability. Add all that up and it’s not a pretty picture, especially when we abandon the technological fundamentalism of the culture and stop believing in fantasy quick fixes for deeply rooted problems.

Our troubles are not the result of the bad behavior within the systems in which we live but of the systems themselves. We have to go to the root and acknowledge that human attempts to control and dominate the non-human world have failed. We are destroying the planet and in the process destroying ourselves.

Where this leaves us

Though I made no claims to special predictive powers, two things seem likely to me: (1) All human activity will become dramatically more local in the coming decades, and (2) Without coordinated global action to change course, there is little hope for the survival of human society as we know it. When I offer such as assessment, I am routinely accused of being hysterical and apocalyptic. But I don’t feel caught up in an emotional frenzy, and I am not preaching a dramatic ending of the human presence on Earth. Instead, I’m taking seriously the available evidence and doing my best to make sense of that evidence to guide my political choices. I believe we all have a moral obligation to do that.


2-26-11, 11:54pm
Thanks for the article and thoughts. I don't know if it is exactly what Mr. Jensen is getting at, but I see the next wave electronic media indeed being a valuable source for information and idea exchange. I have young friend who is in film school and their entry level camera for video production is a $1000 DSLR. No complex film camera or expensive digital movie camera. There are slightly more elaborate cameras that have been used to film whole high resolution TV serials. Combine that with streaming video and utube type access and you have not only a cheap way to produce complex ideas but easy access for sharing. It won't be too long before the new reading devices will have more widespread access to all sorts of literary and documentary information. And the ability to break out of media controlled by big money and commercial interests.

One of the big challenges may indeed be information overload. I see the internet and what we call web-surfing changing very quickly. But one current issue, I think, is that we are developing a shorter attention span and less ability to digest complex ideas.

I don't know if electonic media is the only key, but it is certainly a huge step forward. I tend to be a little apocalyptic myself and think that mear information will have to combine with real incentives that directly affect people's well being. I think of how all the information in the world was nudging the global warming ball forward, but big changes in innovation and behaviour started to happen only when oil prices jumped up. My positive side says that hopefully there will be some equilibriums reached as resources become scarce and over-consumption begins to affect the first world countries.

2-28-11, 9:36pm
ziggy, I tend to agree with your view that human society is on a coliision course with the ecological carrying capacity of the earth. I recently finished a book "Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change" that made a pretty strong case that the reason the population has exploded from 1B people around 100 years ago to over 7B now is largely because of the huge benefit(curse?) to humanity of fossil fuels. When spelled out in the staggering number of man hours of work that is able to be done by each gallon of fossil fuel it becomes apparent that the only way we can continue to be such an overwhelming species on the planet is if fossil fuel usage continues indefinitely into the future. If peak oil is real as it has to be eventually, unless the Russian idea of abiotic oil is really the true way that oil gets created, then it seems that we're likely in a huge population bubble that will burst once there's not enough affordable fossil fuels to continue in the current manner.

As far as the idea that technology has made information distribution much easier/better/etc. I would agree completely. One can certainly look at the USA and make the case that it doesn't appear to be translating into action. And that may or may not be correct. Perhaps it's just that it hasn't translated to significant action yet, but that as more and more info keeps getting moved around that info will build up in people until a tipping point is reached where action is the result. Only time will tell. But one can also look to the revolts happening in the middle east and ask whether yemen led to egypt and bahrain and libya because people in those places now have waaaaaay more access to information about what other people's are doing. Before, with no internet, people in those countries had much less access to non-state-controlled media than they do now.